Utah is home to a whopping 5 of America’s 63 national parks. Each of these national parks boasts its own unique and otherworldly landscapes. You’ve probably seen countless photos and videos flooded across social media and wondered if it’s as beautiful in real life. Well, let me tell you, the Mighty Five live up to the hype. The best way to experience the parks is a road trip across the state. In this post, you’ll find a guide and itinerary for a Utah national parks road trip to explore the Mighty Five in 6 days.
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What Are the Mighty Five Parks in Utah?
There’s the famous Zion National Park. The hoodoo-laden Bryce Canyon National Park. Then Arches National Park is as close to Mars as you can get on Earth. The serene and vast Canyonlands National Park. Finally, along the waterpocket fold is Capitol Reef National Park. These are Utah’s Mighty Five, and this is the order to visit them that I suggest in this itinerary.
How Long Does It Take To See All the National Parks in Utah?
Ideally, to comfortably enjoy all that Utah’s Mighty Five has to offer you’d want to have 7-10 days. Nevertheless, if you’re short on time and up for the challenge, it’s doable to see all of them in a 6-day trip. The days are long and exhausting, but it’s worth it. Remember that this is only a suggested itinerary, so tailor it to your needs. Pick and choose the activities that appeal to you and do what you are up for.
When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Utah’s National Parks?
All five parks are open to the public year-round. While they’re a beautiful destination no matter the season, spring and fall are ideal for a trip through Utah’s national parks.
Summer: This is peak season with high crowds and extreme temperatures. Plan to arrive early or after 3 p.m. to avoid the worst of both. These are also the driest months, and the days are filled with endless sunshine.
Winter: Low season. You’ll see a wonderland of sparkling snow and fewer crowds. However, this also means shorter days, road closures, and cold temperatures.
Spring: This season brings a variety of conditions month to month. March will still see snow, and April brings high rainfall. May and June are mostly comfortable months to visit with rising temperatures without the large crowds.
Fall: In the fall, the summer crowds begin to dwindle. As will the extreme heat. September will still have its hot days, but by October it’s milder. The leaves will change into an explosion of vibrant color, and the temperature will significantly drop.
Tips for Planning Your Utah National Park Vacation
- Each park has an entrance fee. Since you’ll visit multiple parks on this trip, it’s best to get an America the Beautiful Pass which grants you entrance to any national park for the entire year. For $80, it’s a bargain. I recommend ordering it online beforehand to save time.
- Holidays and weekends, especially during peak season, see the largest number of visitors for the year. Wait times to enter the park can be hours long, parks reach capacity and close by morning with lengthy lines for popular trails. Plan your visit accordingly.
- Book national park hotels early, many sell out months in advance. It’s best to reserve your hotel as soon as possible.
- Bring plenty of water. Whatever you think you need, double that. Even in the winter and cooler months, dehydration is possible.
- Leave no trace. Properly dispose of any trash, leave whatever you find, and respect wildlife and fellow visitors. Value these lands so we can continue to enjoy them for years to come.
- Check the national park's website for weather updates and road closures. This is especially important in the winter when storms can impact your trip.
Road Trip Itinerary to Explore Utah’s Mighty Five in 6 Days
Day 1: Fly Into Las Vegas and Drive to Zion National Park
After landing at Harry Reid International Airport, pick up your rental car and begin the journey to Zion. If your flight arrives at night, there are hotels near the airport to stay and start your road trip early the following day. A three-hour drive after a flight might seem excessive, but with limited time it’s good to get a move on. Try to book the earliest flight available for a start to the national park on day one.
Before checking into your hotel, get a taste of Zion with a hike. The best way to experience the stunning landscapes is with one of the many trails nestled within the park. There’s a trail for every level of activity, with easy, moderate, or difficult hikes to choose from.
Need to Know Information for Zion National Park:
- There are a few ways to reach Zion NP. You can fly into the Salt Lake City airport or the regional airports of St. George and Cedar City. The popular option is flying into Las Vegas’s Harry Reid International Airport. The drive to Zion from Las Vegas is 3 hours.
- A shuttle bus runs through the popular areas of the national park, generally from March to November. This is the most convenient way to get around. Driving to each destination is not recommended here, parking lots fill quickly early in the morning. Shuttle buses also run from nearby towns to get you to the entrance of Zion National Park.
- A timed reservation system is no longer in place as of 2023. Except for its most popular hike, Angels Landing requires a permit through a lottery. Plan early if you hope to do this hike.
First (And Only) Stop: Zion Canyon Overlook
A great introduction to Zion and an option for sunset is the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail. It’s shorter, so it's ideal for the first hike and after the drive. This is a moderate-rated hike, yet a mere mile out and back. The best bang for your buck hike in the entire national park.
You’ll find plenty of space for parking but understand that the shuttle doesn't stop here and a car is required. This short trail provides some of the most breathtaking views from its overlook, and at sunset, the canyon fills with a golden glow. Afterward, make your way to your hotel or dinner. The closest town is Springdale, Utah where you'll find most lodging options.
Length: 1 mile out and back
Elevation Gain: 187 feet
Day 2: Zion National Park Continued
Before traveling to Zion National Park for sunrise, check out of your hotel early since you’ll be driving to the next national park after. Arriving at Zion for sunrise means more time on the trails, beating some of the crowd, and the worst periods of heat. Plus, the sunrise in Zion is incredible.
First Stop: Angels Landing Trail or the Narrows
Zion National Park's two most popular hikes are Angels Landing and the Narrows. Either of these should be your first hike of the day. You can attempt to do both on the same day, but I would advise against this as they are both challenging hikes.
On my trip, I chose Angels Landing. The hike is a steep climb up narrow sections and 21 switchbacks to Scout Lookout. From there, the last half mile of the trail is a chained ridge off a cliff to reach a higher observation point. If you have a fear of heights, I’d suggest not completing the last portion. I didn’t attempt the chain section for this reason. Angels Landing is considered one of the most dangerous hikes in America with over 15 reported deaths, 5 of which occurred in the past five years. Take it slow while hiking and remain vigilant to stay safe.
Length: 4.4 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,827 feet
Permit required *
If you decide to do the Narrows, you'll hike through the Virgin River into the narrow slot canyon. There are a few routes to take, but the most popular is the bottom-up trail.
Length: 8.9 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 695 feet
Second Stop: Zion Canyon Visitor Center
Take a break between hikes. Stop by the visitor center and have a snack to regain your energy. Rest your body to prepare for an afternoon of more hiking.
Third Stop: Watchman Trail
The Watchman Trail is an easy-to-moderate underrated hike. It has significantly fewer crowds compared to the more famous Zion hikes. There will be a steady incline and several switchbacks to the top, where you’ll encounter panoramic views of the plateau.
Length: 3.1 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 636 feet
Fourth Stop: Pa’rus Trail
The Pa'rus Trail is an easy hike with amazing views along the Virgin River. On a gentle path, you’ll see the classic Zion picture of the Virgin River with mountains towering in the background. It’s the perfect way to end your time in Zion National Park.
Length: 3.4 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 134 feet
If you have time, there are plenty of other hikes to consider. Zion is a hiker’s paradise after all. This includes Kayenta Trail, Emerald Pools Trail, and Observation Point via East Mesa Trail.
By the late afternoon, you’ll want to leave Zion to travel to the next destination. Bryce Canyon National Park is less than an hour and a half drive and one of the most scenic car rides I’ve ever taken. Be sure to pull over on the designated sections in the road and snap some pictures. The closest town to the national park is Bryce Canyon City, Utah where you will find most lodging options to check into your hotel.
Where to Stay in Zion National Park
Places to Eat in Zion National Park
1. Café Soleil – open for breakfast and lunch
2. Deep Creek Coffee – open for coffee, breakfast, and lunch
3. Oscar's Café – open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
4. Whiptail Grill – open for lunch or dinner
Also check out my list of the best hikes in Zion National Park here!
Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park
All of Utah’s Mighty Five exemplify America’s beautiful landscapes, but Bryce Canyon National Park was my favorite. From the magical hoodoos that look straight out of a science fiction movie and lack of extreme crowds, I enjoyed every second I spent here.
What is a hoodoo? A hoodoo is a pinnacle weathered rock left by erosion. These towering formations of all shapes and sizes comprise most of Bryce Canyon National Park.
Need to Know Information for Bryce Canyon National Park:
- The weather in Bryce Canyon National Park varies drastically but has the cooler temperatures of the Mighty Five overall. During the shoulder seasons of spring and fall expect cold weather in the morning with rising temps through the day. In winter, there will be plenty of snow on the ground so hike with caution this time of year.
- A free shuttle bus runs through the national park from spring through early fall. For the rest of the year, you'll drive to each destination. Luckily, there’s plenty of parking here.
- No reservations or permits are required at Bryce Canyon. Though crowds tend to be lower, and parking is available, it’s better to arrive early at popular trailheads to secure your spot.
First Stop: Sunrise at Sunset Point
One of the best things to do in Bryce Canyon National Park is to take in a sunrise at Sunset Point. It sounds backward, but it's the perfect spot to witness an exquisite sunrise as the morning light transforms hoodoos into a painting of pink and gold. No hiking is required here, just soak up the view from the overlook.
Second Stop: Navajo Loop and Queens Garden Trail
From Sunset Point, you can begin hiking Bryce’s most popular trail. If there’s only time for one hike at Bryce Canyon National Park, make it the Navajo Loop and Queens Garden Trail. You’ll encounter all the famous highlights along this trail and get your hoodoo fill.
Some iconic points of interest on the trail are Thor’s Hammer, Wall Street, Two Bridges, and Queen Victoria.
Length: 3.1-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 649 feet
Third Stop: Bryce Canyon Visitor Center and Lunch
Following the morning hike, stop at the visitor center and then go into town for lunch. I ate at i.d.k. Barbecue, the food was delicious and perfect to refuel for the afternoon ahead.
Fourth Stop: Drive Along Bryce Canyon Road
Driving along Bryce Canyon Road to visit each scenic viewpoint, was the most relaxing part of my trip. It's one of the best things to do in Bryce Canyon National Park. Seeing the hoodoos from different perspectives was so enjoyable. Try to catch the sunset at Inspiration Point.
The Best Stops on Bryce Canyon Road:
- Bryce Point
- Inspiration Point (great for sunset)
- Natural Bridge - *shuttle bus doesn’t stop here
- Rainbow Point - *shuttle bus doesn’t stop here
Where to Stay in Bryce Canyon National Park
Places to Eat in Bryce Canyon National Park
1. Bryce Canyon Coffee Co. – open for coffee and snacks
2. Bryce Canyon Pines – open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
3. Showdowns – open for lunch or dinner
4. i.d.k Barbecue – open for lunch or dinner
Day 4: Arches National Park
Prepare for a long drive today. Head out as early as possible to maximize your time in the afternoon in Arches NP. A grave error I made was leaving my hotel shortly after 9 in the morning. In hindsight, I should have left before 8. The drive from Bryce Canyon National Park to Arches National Park will take approximately 4 hours.
Need to Know Information for Arches National Park:
- The weather in Arches National Park fluctuates but has extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold temperatures in the winter. During my trip, it was hot midday in October. Be prepared for these conditions.
- As of 2023, you are required to reserve a timed entry for Arches National Park from April through October. Always check the national park website to see the latest updates.
- Outside the reservation period, expect large crowds, especially on weekends, even during the shoulder seasons. Parking lots can fill up by 9 a.m., and access will be denied into the park. Come before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m. to avoid the national park being at capacity.
- There is no shuttle bus for Arches National Park. The only way to travel throughout the park is to drive to each trailhead or vista.
- Moab, the city outside of Arches National Park, is a unique and hip place with plenty of restaurants and shops to check out. If time permits, I highly suggest exploring Moab.
First Stop: Double Arch Trail
Upon entering Arches National Park, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to another world driving down the dusty roads. The first stop in Arches is the Double Arch Trail due to its ease and short length. This is more of a stroll than a hike and is one of the most beautiful spots here. As the name suggests, you’ll encounter two massive arches. It’s a great introduction to the plethora of natural arches you’ll see in the national park.
There are over 2,000 arches in Arches National Park! The most famous arch is Delicate Arch, but Double Arch has the tallest opening.
Length: 0.6 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 95 feet
Second Stop: Windows Loop and Turret Arch Trail
A quick 2-minute drive from the Double Arch trailhead will lead you to the Windows Loop and Turret Arch Trail. Another short and simple walk rather than a hike with incredible views from the arches. While the North and South Window arches are not to be missed, the Turret Arch is an often overlooked gem.
Length: 1.2 miles loop
Elevation Gain: 154 feet
Third Stop: Balanced Rock
While this is technically considered a trail, in reality, it's a short walk on a 0.3-mile loop. This is as easy as it gets and shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes out of your day. On this quick and gentle walk, you can observe a giant boulder miraculously perched atop a spire.
Fourth Stop: Landscape Arch Trail
Next up is a visit to the longest arch in North America! Landscape Arch has an impressive opening of 306 feet. You don’t want to skip this as it might not be around forever since pieces have broken off through the years. It’s an easy hike to reach Landscape Arch, but you can also continue to Devils Garden. That is a challenging and long trek where you’ll see a whopping eight arches.
Length: 1.9 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 252 feet
Fifth Stop: Sunset in Arches National Park or Dead Horse Point State Park
Instead of staying with the gathering crowds for sunset at the national park, I headed to Dead Horse Point State Park. The state park is a half-hour drive away and has plenty of open space to watch the sunset. It was a breathtaking sight to witness the golden glow along the canyon wall until the sun set behind the snaking Colorado River. This was one of my favorite places on the trip, and it had half the crowds of any national park! After sunset, grab some food and check in to your hotel.
Check out more Southwest hidden gems at Off the Beaten Travel. This is an incredible list of remarkable places to see, like Dead Horse Point State Park, without the crowds!
Day 5: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park
Today you’ll visit 2 national parks. Starting day five at Arches NP and then spending the rest of the day at Canyonlands NP. While there's limited time at Canyonlands National Park, you still see some main highlights in one day.
Arches National Park
First Stop: Delicate Arch Trail
First up is hiking to the famous Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, aka that magnificent arch on all the license plates. This iconic image is a must-see and naturally one of the national park's most popular trails. Rightfully so with its otherworldly beauty, but something to consider when planning your visit. It gets crowded here, more than anywhere else I witnessed on my Mighty Five road trip. At 8 a.m. on a Friday the parking lot was full, forcing me to the second lot and thus adding almost a mile to my hike. I suggest arriving by 7 a.m. to score one of the closer spots.
Length: 3.2 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 629 feet
Second Stop: Park Avenue Trail
I chose not to complete the entire trail because I was ready to spend the rest of my time in Canyonlands NP, but luckily you can get a great view right from the parking lot. This is a boulevard of uniquely formed rocks in an array of shapes and colors. Truly a stunning sight that I hope to return to one day to complete the hike.
Length: 1.8 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 298 feet
Canyonlands National Park
I suggest heading out by noon to drive to the next destination. The drive from Arches National Park to Canyonlands National Park is approximately 30 minutes. On this road trip, you will only visit the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands. Exploring Canyonlands is a relaxed afternoon, mostly stopping at overlooks with a few short easy trails. Simply enjoy the natural splendor of the canyons.
Need to Know Information for Canyonlands National Park:
- Canyonlands is huge! It has three regions: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. Island in the Sky is the most visited and most accessible area. Visiting the Needless would require an additional day to the itinerary. The Maze is the least visited and most remote of the three. A permit is required as is a 4-wheel drive vehicle to traverse these roads.
- As of 2023, Canyonlands National Park does not require reservations. There has been an increase in visitors over the years, so this may change. It’s always best to check the national park website for updates.
- No shuttle bus runs through Canyonlands. You need a car to reach each destination in the park.
- Canyonlands National Park is one of Utah’s dark sky parks. A dark sky park is where light pollution is limited enough to view the night sky and witness the Milky Way and the constellations. Arches and Bryce are also dark sky parks, but Canyonlands is more remote. You must be comfortable driving at night or staying at the Willow Flat Campground.
First Stop: Shafer Canyon Overlook
Your first stop in Canyonlands NP is the Shafer Canyon Overlook. It’s a short walk from the parking lot with an incredible vista of the canyons. This is a quick stop but great to soak up the views.
Second Stop: Mesa Arch Trail
From Shafer Canyon Overlook, drive 10 minutes to the Mesa Arch Trailhead. Reaching Mesa Arch is an easy and short hike to Canyonlands’ most popular spot. When looking through this beautiful arch, you can see the vast canyons of the park. No matter what time you visit, it’s sure to enchant you, but it’s famous to behold for sunrise. You can reverse the itinerary for the day, starting in Canyonlands for sunrise and ending with the Delicate Arch for sunset.
Length: 0.7-mile loop
Elevation Gain: 88 feet
Third Stop: Green River Overlook
Up next is Green River Overlook, a quick 5-minute drive from Mesa Arch and where I ended my day. Rather than continuing to the next destination, I decided to relax here before heading back to the hotel. I fell in love with this spot because the shape of the canyons reminded me of dinosaur footprints!
If you have the time and energy, there are plenty more Canyonlands National Park highlights to add to your road trip. Visit Buck Canyon Overlook, Grand View Point Overlook Trail, or the White Rim Overlook Trail. Both trails are easy 1.8-mile hikes.
Where to Stay in Moab
Places to Eat in Moab
1. Moab Brewery – open for lunch and dinner
2. Sweet Cravings Bakery – open for coffee and snacks
3. Moab Diner – open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
4. Josie Wyatt's Grille – open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
5. Milt's Stop & Eat – open for lunch and dinner
6. Susie's Branding Iron Restaurant – open for lunch and dinner
Day 6: Capitol Reef National Park and Back Home
There’s still one national park left to complete the Mighty Five road trip: Capitol Reef National Park. This is only a half-day visit before driving to the airport for your flight home. Admittedly, it was my least favorite of the five Utah national parks, but I wouldn't skip it. Capitol Reef is still worth the drive and visit.
Need to Know Information for Capitol Reef National Park:
- While a less popular national park, don’t underestimate the weekend crowds. I missed out on a few planned activities since the parking lots were full by early Saturday afternoon.
- No reservations are needed for Capitol Reef National Park, but weekends and peak season will be busy, so arrive early to find parking.
- Capitol Reef NP doesn’t have a shuttle bus. A private vehicle is needed to access the trailheads and points of interest.
First Stop: Panorama Point
From Moab, the drive to Capitol Reef NP is a little over 2 hours. You’ll want to set out early in the morning. The first stop after entering the national park is Panorama Point. This is a beautiful vista of the park’s unique sandstone formations. No matter which way you turn standing atop Panorama Point, you’ll see amazing views of the landscape.
Second Stop: Goosenecks & Sunset Point
Taking the dirt road from Panorama Point, drive down to Goosenecks Point for a different view of the national park. The parking lot here will serve both Goosenecks Point and Sunset Point. The overlook for Goosenecks is a short walk from where you parked your car and offers a spectacular view of the winding mountains. Back at the parking lot, Sunset Point is less than half a mile in the opposite direction. Be careful of the edges as there are drop-offs, but the payoff at the end of this short walk is panoramic views of Capitol Reef's cliffs and peaks.
Third Stop: Hickman Bridge Trail
The parking lot was full during my visit, so I haven’t done this hike. However, visitors have told me it’s one of the best hikes in Capitol Reef National Park. It’s a short trail to a beautiful natural arch. I hope to see it when I return one day.
Length: 1.7 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 416 feet
Fourth Stop: Gifford Homestead
In the heart of Capitol Reef NP is the Gifford Homestead, a historic house and farm built in 1908. Today the home is known for selling local products and is famous for its homemade pies. They’re open seasonally, usually from March 14th aka Pi Day until November. As a dedicated lover of pie, this was one spot I had to visit.
Unfortunately, when I arrived in the early afternoon, they had sold out all their pies for the day. If you want to secure one of Gifford Homestead’s pies make sure to get there early!
Where to Stay in Capitol Reef National Park
Places to Eat in Capitol Reef National Park
1. Gifford Homestead – open for pies and snacks
2. Slackers Burger Joint – open for lunch and dinner
3. Marinia's Country Cafe - open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
4. The Wild Rabbit Cafe - open for breakfast and lunch
End of Road Trip - Back to the Airport
Now begins the long trek back to the airport. There are two options for flying home. You can either fly out of Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. From Capitol Reef National Park, the drive to Las Vegas takes approximately 6 hours, and the drive to Salt Lake City will be around 3 ½ hours. Either way works, but I chose the drive to Las Vegas since round-trip flights were more budget-friendly.
What to Pack for a Utah National Park Road Trip
- Hiking Boots: There’s no shortage of hiking in this Utah national park itinerary and you’ll want proper footwear for these trails.
- Hiking Poles: For the more challenging and steep trails, bring a pair of hiking poles with you to help on the inclines.
- Sun Protection: Sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses will be your best friend in Utah. There’s very little shade, and the sun’s rays are strong. Have all the protection you can.
- Hydration Pack and Water Bottle: The weather in Utah’s national parks is extreme, especially in summer. To stay safe, stay hydrated at all times!
- Mosquito Wipes: I suggest this on every single national park packing list because there’s nothing worse on a trail than being swarmed by mosquitos.
- Snacks: Road trip = snacks. Bring all the snacks! (You’ll want them for the trails too.)
Utah is a gorgeous state with incredible hikes and breathtaking scenery. Each of Utah’s five national parks is a gem on its own, but together they make the road trip of a lifetime. It’s a feat to explore the mighty five in 6 days, but you’ll savor these memories forever. Let me know in the comments if you’re planning a Utah national parks road trip!